JMU announces plan to resume in-person classes

JMU announces plan to resume in-person classes
James Madison University sign (Source: WHSV)

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WVIR) - James Madison University shared more details of its plan to resume in-person classes on October 5.

It will launch a mandatory surveillance testing program that will test 300 non-symptomatic students per week who have not tested positive to try to get ahead of potential outbreaks.

It will also increase quarantine and isolation space, cap class sizes at 50 people, and provide an online option for after Thanksgiving.

JMU said additional changes could be announced in the next week.


Dear JMU Family,

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the university’s main priority has been keeping our community safe. We moved to de-densify campus and transitioned to remote learning for four weeks because we care, first and foremost, about your well-being. In the time since we transitioned online, we have increased our ability to keep our students, employees and residents of Harrisonburg safe. We are currently finalizing plans to resume in-person instruction on Oct. 5.

What follows are additions to our original reopening plan. With these changes, plus additional changes we will be announcing between now and Sept. 25, we are confident that we will have a successful in-person experience going forward. More specific information, such as move-in dates and logistics, will be included in the announcement before Sept. 25.

Launching a mandatory surveillance testing program

In addition to the University Health Center’s existing testing capacity, JMU has contracted with a third-party testing company to test 300 non-symptomatic students per week who have not yet tested positive for COVID-19 to identify and get ahead of potential outbreaks of the virus. Testing will be initially focused on on-campus students. Note that this is a different kind of testing strategy than entry testing, where all students are tested prior to returning to campus. Research, and the CDC, continue to assert that entry testing has no sound basis in science and is a misuse of testing resources. Therefore, JMU will not be testing all students prior to their return to the classroom.

Increasing our quarantine and isolation space

One of the key triggers for reducing the number of students on campus earlier this fall was the university’s concern about our ability to provide isolation and quarantine space locally to those who may need it. We have since tripled our isolation and quarantine beds and continue to add capacity ahead of Oct. 5. We have taken a very conservative approach to our quarantine strategy, quarantining any student who may have had contact with a positive case of COVID-19. We are in the minority of schools in taking this approach, but feel it has been, and will continue to be, important in keeping students, faculty and staff safe.

Limiting the number of students in a class to 50 people

We will cap capacity for all classroom spaces at 50 people. This means the majority of classes with over 50 students will continue to meet online for the rest of the semester. Some classes with enrollments over 50 students will continue to operate in a hybrid model, where students are assigned days to meet in-person and days to meet online. In no case will more than 50 students meet face-to-face in person. Details on how their classes will meet will be provided to students by their instructors.

A marked decrease in positive cases of COVID-19

It is important to note that JMU has been publicly reporting the number of positive cases of COVID-19 that students self-report to the University Health Center (UHC) after being tested at an off-campus health care provider on the university’s dashboard. Many schools are only reporting cases that are identified in their own university health center. We have been as transparent as possible in reporting both self-reported cases as well as cases identified at the UHC. We are in the minority in doing that, which is important to remember when comparing case counts across schools' dashboards.

Of all the positive cases confirmed since July 1, 261 cases are considered active or have been diagnosed in the last 10 days. Since peaking on Sept. 6, our seven-day moving average for students testing positive at the UHC has dropped significantly. Keep in mind, the UHC is only testing symptomatic students and those who have been in close contact with a known case of COVID-19. From a medical perspective, students who have tested positive are faring very well during the outbreak.

The Health Center is seeing students who are asymptomatic or have mild illness. The large majority of students require no medical care other than a COVID test. Students have been able to identify where they caught the virus, and from whom, with great clarity, allowing us to contact those who may have been exposed. The outbreak in our population has not affected our local hospital’s capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, and the small number of faculty and staff who have contracted the virus believe they likely contracted it off campus, not from on-campus interactions. We have not seen spread between students and faculty or staff, and there is no evidence that the virus was passed in any of our classroom settings. The vast majority of transfer was through on- and off-campus social gatherings.

Weekend hours will be added to the University Health Center before students return on Oct. 5.

Changes to dining facilities

Across all campus dining options, we are expanding hours and further lowering capacity. Dining service managers will more actively enforce mask wearing while students are not eating or drinking. Students also will be required to show their Livesafe app daily self-attestation result upon swiping their JAC card while entering all dining facilities. To-Go options will be increased at the all-you-can-eat dining halls, along with changed flow to allow for more queuing space and physical distancing.

Starting up a Scientific & Public Health Advisory Team

JMU’s Office of Research & Scholarship launched the Scientific & Public Health Advisory Team, consisting of 19 individuals with scientific and/or public health backgrounds from JMU, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Merck, MITRE, SRI and the University of Florida. The group functions to inform JMU leadership of current scientific research and public health guidance related to COVID-19. This support will bolster the guidance received in recent months from the university’s medical experts, the Virginia Department of Health and faculty members across campus.

Canceling fall break and providing an online option after Thanksgiving

The university has canceled fall break, originally slated for Oct. 22-23, in an attempt to reduce student travel. The two break days will be added to the end of the semester, and exams will start two days sooner than originally planned. After Thanksgiving break, all courses and exams will move online for the remainder of the semester, and all exams will be online. Campus will remain open for students who choose to return to JMU, but this will not be mandatory. More details will be available by Sept 25.

Observing changes in student behavior

While student compliance to COVID-19 rules have been strong, with the overwhelming majority making positive, responsible decisions, we did observe some problematic behavior leading up to the start of classes, including students participating in social gatherings. While there continues to be some concerning gatherings of students, most students have changed their behavior significantly, and if they are still gathering, it has tended to be in small groups. The Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices is currently reviewing over 250 cases ranging from simple compliance concerns to hosting large events to determine what sanctions those students may be subject to. We are also managing a few incidents of behavior directly attributed to student organizations.

These developments are significant, based on the latest scientific research and will move the needle in preventing the velocity of spread we observed in late August. We are continuing to make decisions as we receive new information. The specifics of move-in and other logistics will be shared in the coming weeks. We are thankful to our community for their enduring support as we navigate these trying times together, and we look forward to resuming in-person instruction on Oct. 5.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Alger

President, James Madison University

Dr. Tim Miller

Vice President, Student Affairs

Dr. Heather Coltman

Provost and Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs

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